Tag Archives: Adler’s personality theory
The question of what drives us—what great force underlies our motivation as individuals, propelling us forward through all manner of trying circumstance—was a matter of longtime fascination for psychologist Alfred Adler. He eventually came to call this motivating force the “striving for perfection”, a term which encapsulates the desire we all have to fulfill our potential, to realize our ideals—a process strikingly similar to the more popular idea of self-actualization.
Self-actualization is perhaps the less problematic of the two terms, as one cannot process Adler’s ideas without immediately bumping up against the troublesome nature of the words “perfection” and “ideal”. While the idea of striving to be the best version of one’s self is an obviously positive goal, the concept of perfection is, in psychology, often given a rather negative connotation. After all, perfection likely does not exist, and therefore cannot be reached, meaning that efforts to do so are invariably frustrating and can come full circle to create an extreme lack of motivation (i.e., giving up).
Indeed, Adler himself balked at using “perfection” to describe his single motivating force, beginning instead with phrases like aggression drive (to describe the frustrated reaction we have when our basic needs, such as the need to eat or be loved, are not being met)—yet even this term had obvious negative connotations; aggression is, after all, seldom seen as a good thing, and using the term “assertiveness” may have served Adler better.
(Interestingly, Freud himself took exception to the term “aggression drive”, though not on the basis that it was overly negative in connotation; instead, Freud felt that it would detract from the pivotal position of the sex drive in psychoanalytic theory. Freud may have had a change of heart in later years, however, as his idea of a “death instinct” bore a great deal of similarity to Adler’s theory.)
Another, perhaps better, descriptor used by Adler to refer to basic motivation was compensation, which in this case was meant to denote the process of striving to overcome one’s inherent limitations. Adler postulated that since we all have various issues and shortcomings as people, our personalities develop largely through the ways in which we do (or do not) compensate for or overcome these inherent challenges. Adler later rejected this idea in part (though it still played an important role in his theory; more on that later), as he decided it was inaccurate to suggest one’s problems are the cause for who one eventually becomes.